By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel
Kippot as kodesh?
Ever since my first year of rabbinical school, I’ve worn a kippah when I’ve prayed. That first moment of placing a kippah on my head of thick, curly hair felt contrived; it felt like something my brother or father wore, or something that a friend who considered herself a serious feminist would wear to make a statement. I wanted to make it mine, the same way that a tallit and even tefillin have become mine, but the kippah has been the hardest for me. I hoped that it would bring me more kavanah or more yirah (awe/fear) of God, and occasionally it does, but mostly has simply been part of distinguishing holy time from chol time. As it turns out, that distinguishing – the why of wearing one or not has become far from simple for me. Did I wear a kippah when I was sitting in class during my days at HUC? Learning in a classroom and taking notes on my laptop just didn’t feel like avodat kodesh. I tried wearing a kippah in that context but it felt artificial to me. Teaching, though, was different. One synagogue asked boys in its religious school to wear kippot during class and explained to girls that kippot were optional. None of these 7 year olds wanted to wear kippot, but if I had any chance of getting them to do so, I knew that I had to model it. Egalitarianism is a core principle for me. I couldn’t wholeheartedly tell half the class that they had to do something that the other half didn’t need to do and I didn’t need to do either. So I committed to wearing a kippah while I was teaching. I watched several of my male friends begin to wear kippot regularly through the day and a piece of me longed to do the same. Did I want to wear a kippah regularly as an outward symbol of my Judaism? Or could I feel just as confident about taking it off when I ended a holy time as when I put it on?
Rote or ritual?
Still, the nuances continued to blur. A year after ordination, I was teaching at a Jewish day school and it seemed like the majority of what I would be doing during the day fell into my ‘praying or teaching’ bracket. So I started wearing a kippah throughout the school day – in meetings, at recess, in class, in tefilah, anywhere and everywhere while I was on campus. I aimed for it to all be holy work, although, of course, in the midst of middle school drama and constantly changing plans, I often forgot that I was even wearing a kippah. I had hoped for those transitory moments of connection when I put it on before I prayed at HUC to remain throughout the years and infuse my days of teaching. Sometimes feeling it on my head did help me refocus my priorities. But on the days when it didn’t have that role, was I wearing it because I hoped for that kavanah in the future? Because I felt like it gave me a different sense of symbolic presence with my students? Because it was now simply what I did? During that time, my reasons to wear a kippah kept evolving. I wore a kippah because it symbolized my love of Judaism a certain context. Unintentionally, it also started to symbolize my being a rabbi. When I realized that I spent more and more time at Jewish communal events that weren’t exactly learning or praying, but were very explicitly about exploring Jewish identity, it felt appropriate to continue wearing a kippah in those contexts too. Since wearing a kippah is not a mitzvah like wearing tzitzit, a tallit, or tefillin, each person is even more free to find his or her reasons for wearing (or not wearing) one.
A few months ago, I was at a lovely gala for a Jewish organization. I was talking with someone who I was just meeting and a rabbinic colleague – the three of us were talking about our mutual connections – and my new acquaintance remarks that she sees four or five women in the room wearing kippot, including us. Can she assume that they are all rabbis? Stumped. I was almost certain that all of the women who were wearing kippot that night were actually rabbis but I did not want to make her think that the only women who wore kippot were rabbis. Would she have asked that question about the men in the room? Doubtful. When did wearing a kippah symbolize my being a rabbi? I’m not entirely sure when or where that started but there it was, staring me in the face. There are moments when it’s useful that someone is able to identify me as the rabbi more quickly because of a kippah, like when a patient’s family saw me in the hospital and before I could even introduce myself, grabbed me and said, “You’re a rabbi? We need you now!” Yet I hope that does not become the sole reason that I wear it (or any other religious item, for that matter). At the end of the day, I hope and pray that I am always rooted in the person who I am primarily, followed by the role that I fill as a rabbi. Otherwise, how could I be authentic in my work, as I sit with patients and families in their pain and pray for God’s comfort? I would offer the same words whether or not I was wearing a kippah. I would pray the same Amidah tomorrow morning. And yet, it might feel different. The family might feel less connected to me if I am wearing one. If they were looking for a peer to hold their hands and the see my kippah as signifying my being a rabbi, has my role changed? How much does it matter what you wear? Do symbols speak louder than your own voice or your own actions? Is the kippah about my role in someone else’s life or about God’s role in my life?
In this week’s parasha, God tells Avram, “lech lecha” – the Mei HaShiloach explains this as “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” When I put on a kippah and fasten it with those two little clips, I ask that it digs me into a deeper awareness of God’s presence. And on the other hand, I ask that as I listen to God whispering lech lecha that I know my authentic self and only wear a kippah when it feels true to my sense of who I am. Jill. Rabbi. Woman…and when it feels true to my sense of what I am doing. Learning. Praying. Teaching. Comforting. Building community and creating connections to Israel or social justice. All avodat kodesh.
Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel is a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.